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Educational Autobiography

rthayil's picture

Chapter 1 – Backyard Shenanigans

Chapter 2 – Finding my Voice Through a Trumpet

Chapter 3 – Ms. Sepulveda and Story Telling Contests

Chapter 4 – Finding God and Learning to Question my Beliefs

Chapter 5 – On Breaking a Brick

Chapter 6 – Math Tutoring and High School Culture

Chapter 7 – AP Chemistry and Other Levels of Hell

Chapter 8 – Why are all of My Friends Speaking in Cantonese?

Chapter 9 – For the Love of Math

Chapter 10 – On Embracing a New Culture


Chapter 6 – Math Tutoring and High School Culture


 All you have to do is find the integral of u and the derivative of v and then plug it into the formula. And the integral of u, ex, is just ex, so it's a fairly simple example. Do you see it?  Her eyebrows were furrowed, and the end of her pen was almost completely defaced. She had a nervous habit of gnawing on it. Yeah, I see it. she responded hesitantly.   Excellent! I exclaimed, slapping my thighs with the palms of my hands. In celebration of her understanding, I left the table to pick up our coffees.


I attended Staten Island Technical High School, one of New York City's highest ranking specialized public high schools. There was a strange culture haunting its halls, a culture of GPA competition (at the cost of sanity, and for some, integrity), ego, and complaint. Students felt ashamed of a GPA below a 99%. They bit off more than they could chew simply to save face. Most people excelled in mathematics. In fact, it was a sight to behold a student on an unaccelerated math tract. With this in mind, it’s not surprising that the occurrence of somebody needing a math tutor was either rare or done privately to avoid the shame. And it all felt so natural.  


I sat back down at our corner table, coffees in hand. I'm sorry, I don't understand it. she admitted. My tensed jaw complimented my frustration. I was not the most patient tutor, but she simply was not trying! That was obviously the only explanation. I had reviewed everything with her. We went to the coffee house almost daily for three weeks leading up to her calculus final. We practiced problem after problem. I had a massive workload with five AP classes and still I was sacrificing valuable time to help her out with math. Although I would never express my feelings aloud, I believed them to be objective and reasonable.


When you're integrated into the fabric of a culture, it's hard to be mindful of it's loose ends. Everything reinforces, intensifies the things you deem typical and atypical. When I was a part of this culture, I believed in it wholly. If I worked hard, I would succeed. Meritocracy, plain and simple. So when I saw Susan struggling to keep afloat in calculus, my only logical conclusion, the only way to keep my schema of success accurate, was to believe in the lack of effort on her part. It could not be that math was "not her strong suit" (math was practically everybody's strong suit!) or that other factors in her life played a role in her struggle, rather it was her failure, a personal deficit of sorts.


In retrospect, I am embarrassed of my shoddily pieced logic. Though there is a certain comfort in the notion that success is solely a matter of effort, that one controls his own fate, it is confining and inaccurate. Even mathematically, the point remains nonsensical. How many variables was I ignoring to reconcile my equation? In my attempt to make sense of my strongly held belief, I warped reality to fit. To believe we are not affected by our environments and situations is utterly deluded and ironic because it is the culture around us that initially placed this idea into our empty hands. We are even influenced by the summation of all our past experiences (as Dewey mentioned with his idea of the “experience continuum”). There is an incredible amount of moving pieces incorporated into our beings. With so many differing possibilities of arrangements, it is only reasonable to conclude that people are correspondingly as varied in nature. Though this conclusion took me much longer to reach than I would like to admit, I am glad to have finally come to it. It is only when one finds his way out of the cave that he can hope to criticize his own views and strive for something better.